I don’t know, these authors! You wait for ages and ages and ages for a new decent dark horrible Medieval thriller by Karen Maitland, and then in the space of a year you get two!
Following on from my review of the excellent The Vanishing Witch back in July, I was delighted to be sent this, her newest book, which is out in hardback in March, so get your pre-orders in now. The Raven’s Head is set a little earlier than her previous books, in 1217 or thereabouts, just after Magna Carta, during the reign of the boy king Henry III. Whilst the politics of the time inform the writing, they really aren’t the main point of this book, unlike The Vanishing Witch, which so beautifully showed the affect of the Peasant’s Revolt on ordinary people. In this book, Maitland goes much, much darker.
Vincent, apprentice librarian in the court of a French lord, is bored of his life in a dusty tower full of ancient documents. When an opportunity comes to blackmail his master, Vincent tries his luck and ends up on the run. His only hope is to sell the valuable silver Raven’s Head ornament his ill fortune has left him with. However, his path to selling the head leads him to the village of Langley, run by the mysterious Lord Sylvian and Father Arthmael’s White Canons.
Vincent’s tale is told alongside those of Wilky, the small son of a local peasant who is taken by the White Canons in exchange for a debt, and apothecary Gisa, who is employed by Lord Sylvian to make up potions whose ingredients include crushed skulls, fresh dung, and strange stones known as dragon’s blood.
As the three characters discover more about the strange practices of Sylvian and Arthmael it soon becomes clear that this is not a story that is going to end well for everyone. For the two men are alchemists, devoted to the ancient practices that using proto-scientific methods to try and turn base materials into gold, and discover the secrets of eternal life. Unfortunately for Vincent, these practices demand human sacrifice and the Raven’s Head, which he believes brings him luck and good fortune, may actually be leading him to his doom.
This was an extremely hard and distressing book to read in parts. Maitland really does push the boundaries as she explores how people used to treat each other-even the legal way of dealing with child poachers had me almost in tears, never mind how Arthmael extracts the raw ingredients to be used in the alchemist practices. The Middle Ages were truly a horrible, horrible time to be alive if you weren’t in a position of extreme power. The descriptions of the abuse, particularly abuse towards children, were hard to stomach, I would imagine very hard to write. Alchemy itself makes absolutely no sense to me because I just don’t understand how people could think and act in the ways they do in this book, but this practice was very well established throughout Europe and Asia, and the ‘methods’ of gaining the knowledge of eternal life passed down in secret books and through the teachings of well know philosophers and proto-scientists.
What this book does do so well is illustrate how ingrained the practice of learning through images and symbols was, and how much people relied on folklore to understand the world around them. How scared you would be in a world you didn’t understand, how jumbled a mind you would have had.
However, this book didn’t match The Vanishing Witch for the sympathy I had in the characters-Vincent especially annoyed me-and the story seemed a little rushed in places and drawn out in others. I also had horrible horrible thoughts and dreams after reading it, though I am going through a bit of stress at the moment so reading a book about the torture of children might not have been the best of ideas. Relaxing beach book this isn’t.
If you are a fan of Maitland you shouldn’t miss this one, think more Gallows’ Curse than Owl Thieves, but I’m so glad she’s cracking out the books now and look forward to seeing what other horrors she has in store in 2016.